Noah Baumbach's films—like The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding—are full of grown people, usually related by marriage or blood, eloquently eviscerating one another. Depending on your own family history, Baumbach's incredible ear for how people really talk to one another can be awe-inspiring or panic-inducing.
His latest is a direct descendant of these flesh-eaters, but with less bite, and maybe more hope. Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a Brooklyn-based carpenter, fortyish, pathologically unhappy, and recently released from a mental hospital after a nervous breakdown, returns to his native Los Angeles to dog-sit for his brother and, in his own words, "try to do nothing for a while."
Roger is the kind of person who starts his many missives to the mayor and various global corporations with, "I'm not one for writing letters of complaint." Desperate to live a life of studied humiliation avoidance, Roger stopped developing as a human at the moment he turned down a record contract—twenty years ago—to maintain his "artistic integrity." But as he starts to run into his old friends (Rhys Ifans) and loves (Jennifer Jason Leigh), it becomes clear that life has passed him by. Roger is unmoored in a sea of people with purpose.
This being L.A., Roger's brother and his wife employ a personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), who is available to help Roger out if anything goes wrong. This being Roger, things go wrong. Luckily, Florence—in her mid-twenties, with a frank smile and a generous heart—is just as unmoored as Roger is, and the two hit it off. Can two more or less feckless people in search of happiness find it in one another?
The low-budget genre dubbed "mumblecore"—talk-y, lightly plotted films made and populated by directionless twenty-somethings who are only beginning to realize that they won't always be young—has grown up in the last five years. And, curiously, Greenberg plays a lot like mature mumblecore (which is to say that it has a plot and a script). Several of the actors—including Gerwig—are alumni of the genre, and the theme of Greenberg mirrors mumblecore's themes and the credo of the generation that spawned it: It is ultimately your relationships, not your occupation or your house or your car, that define you. (It also has the millennial generation's sense of nonchalance toward things like casual sex and abortion.)
Yet, somehow, a directionless twenty-five-year-old is infinitely less depressing than a directionless forty-year-old, and it is this divide that Greenberg addresses. At Roger's birthday dinner, his friend Ivan remarks that "youth is wasted on the young," to which Roger sputters, "I'd go further. I'd say life is wasted on … people." He's had the bad fortune to wake up one day and realize his whole life isn't in front of him anymore, but there's no way to recapture it. Only Florence's youthful openness is appealing—but it scares him as well, because it threatens his narcissistic, insulated world.
All these various existential crises are filtered through Baumbach's undiminished dialogue-crafting abilities; you can practically see characters forming their next statement in their heads while ostensibly listening to their conversation partner. Los Angeles is made into a lush and Hollywood-free backdrop for the perfectly stilted, awkward, yet sincere chemistry between the main characters. Gerwig, in particular, can effortlessly flip from gawky to gorgeous.
By the end of the movie, it's obvious Roger has learned something—what, we're not sure, but Florence has certainly changed him. And he's changed Florence, too. Their still-drifting lives are anchored a bit by their connection to one another. They've experienced more stilted maturation than inspiring redemption—but it's a start.Discussion starters
- What regrets do you have regarding your past? What effect have they had on your life? Have you tried to reconcile them?
- In the film, the characters remark that "hurt people hurt people." Have you ever been confronted by a friend regarding a way you hurt them, but been hurt as well? How did you react?
- We know that we are always falling short of God's glory. How does he treat us? What can we learn from this? (See 1 John 1:9.)
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Greenberg is rated R for some strong sexuality, drug use, and language. Bad language includes the f-word and other obscenities. Teenagers and adults snort coke and drink at a party. There are two scenes with a topless female, including one incredibly awkward sex scene. A character has an (unquestioned) abortion.
Photos © Focus Features.
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